This post gathers together some information about Jackie Robinson’s life after leaving the Dodgers and his death. Beyond some vague things about his involvement in politics, and being an executive at Chock Full O’ Nuts, and dying sometime in the ‘70s, it seemed, I hadn’t heard much about his post-playing life. So the material provided below was an education.
Here is Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post writing about his retirement not long after it happened in 1957:
WE CAME out of the theatre where Jackie Robinson had taken a bow in the audience of the Ed Sullivan Show. It was snowing and the kids were standing in the storm with Elvis Presley buttons pinned on their coats. They asked for Robinson’s autograph and he gave it to them. He is famous for being a ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he put his name on those pads as the personnel director of Chock Full O’ Nuts. They are his employers now. He is through, Robinson explained, forever with his game and had signed a two-year contract with the lunch-counter chain.
The guy he is now working for is William Black, who never made the big leagues, but then neither did Buzzie Bavasi. It infuriates Bavasi, one of the Brooklyn vice presidents, because Robinson has decided not to work for the Giants, where he was sent for a score of cash and a left-handed pitcher. . . .
We ate spaghetti in La Scala on W. 54th Street and Robinson talked. He was angry. “I begged the Giants not to announce the deal,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to embarrass any one. I didn’t know I was traded, but I called Buzzie to tell him not to trade Randy Jackson. I got his secretary. She said he was en route to New York. I had signed with the Chock Full O’ Nuts before the trade. I was calling to do Buzzie a favor. I thought he was a nice guy.
“My new job entails finding out why they have such a turnover in employees. It wasn’t created for me. One of the executives got sick and people moved up. The only way I could have stayed in baseball is if William Black . . . who hired me . . . told me it was important to Chock Full O’ Nuts . Even if the Dodgers hadn’t traded me, I was gone.
“I had a meeting with Mr. Black and the magazine people when Red Patterson . . . who works for Buzzie . . . called me.
“I called Buzzie. Buzzie said, I’ll come to your house. I have something important to tell you.’ I said, I’ve never seen you like this. What can it be?’ He said, You are now a Giant.’ It took me by surprise. I didn’t say anything to him. I called Chub Feeney. I told him to withhold the story. He didn’t.
“I can’t understand Buzzie. Ten days before he wrote me a letter telling me all I’ve done for the organization. Then he comes up with such stuff like he does, blasting me.”
It wasn’t, Robinson said, until Black made him the proposition about six weeks ago that he decided to quit baseball.
“I wasn’t sure. There were times last year when I played real well, but there were times when I got to the ball park and had trouble giving my best. When I can’t give my best, I’m through. Because I don’t do what Buzzie wants me, he turns around and blasts me. He acted like a little kid, taking his ball home and not letting the game be played.
“The trade had nothing to do with it. If I had made up my mind to play, I’d play for New York, Brooklyn or Pasadena. Rachel, my wife, and I discussed it. She’d be more thrilled than ever. I wanted to go out without saying a word to anyone. I wanted to finish as a member of the Brooklyn Baseball Club. The Dodgers didn’t offer me a salary. I was going to ask for a raise. I didn’t sign a contract with the Giants or the Dodgers. I signed with Chock Full O’ Nuts.
“Why should I get in touch with Bavasi or anyone? My retirement is my business. Two-faced as he is, I’m sorry now that I tried to call him, but I did call his secretary and couldn’t get him. I was going to tell him I quit baseball.
“In Japan, Buzzie wrote me a long letter. He said I was carrying on. You know all the guys and their wives were having some fun. Everyone else was doing it. I said I’m doing it myself. He also asked me for information on young players. I mean he wanted my opinion on their playing ability. I felt good, him asking me that. Now he’s slapping back at me because I’m doing what’s right for me. I never saw anyone as little. Littleness is all it can be. I wrote him back exactly my opinion.”
Here’s a timeline of Robinson’s retirement that John Shea of the S.F. Chronicle wrote a few years ago:
Though many believe Robinson retired because he didn’t want to play for the rival Giants, the truth is that he was planning to quit, anyway. In fact, long before the trade, he sold his retirement story to Look magazine, which was to break the story and pay Robinson $50,000 for a series of articles.
The timeline, with help from Dodgers historian Mark Langill, is telling.
Dec. 10, 1956: Robinson accepts a job with Chock Full O’ Nuts (a chain of New York-based lunch counters), a two-year deal for $30,000 a year. He’s to be vice president and director of personnel. It’s not immediately publicized.
Dec. 13: The announcement comes that he’s traded by Bavasi, who apparently doesn’t know Robinson plans to retire.
Jan. 8, 1957: Look is to hit news stands, though the story is leaked in advance. Bavasi irks Robinson by reportedly saying the retirement talk is to get more money from the Giants, making Robinson more determined to retire.
Jan. 11: Giants vice president Chub Feeney sends Robinson a contract for $35,000 with an attached note: “If you decide to play, naturally financial terms will be open to discussion.” The Associated Press later speculates the Giants would have gone as high as $65,000.
Jan. 14: Robinson writes a note to Giants owner Horace Stoneham on Chock full o’ Nuts stationery that he’s requesting to be placed on the voluntary retired list and that it’s unrelated to the trade. Stoneham responds with this message: “I can’t help but thinking it would have been fun to have had you on our side for a year or two.”
In 2007, Buzzie Bavasi, 92, said of Robinson: “If he went to the Giants, they might still be in New York. He’d have meant that much to them. If Jackie played for the Giants, they would’ve had a great ’57 and ’58. Imagine Jackie and Willie Mays together. Plus, the Polo Grounds were exactly a half-mile from the middle of Harlem.
“I was opposed to the trade. The only reason he was traded was because Walter O’Malley and Jackie never got along. It was a personal feud between Walter and Jackie, and I was asked to trade him. Walter wanted a trade a year earlier, but I told Walter we could win the pennant in ’56 with Jackie and wouldn’t without him. So he put it off a year.”
Back in 1987, Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News drew the scene of Robinson’s last appearance in a major league stadium:
Jackie Robinson swaggered across ballyards all those years, arrogance in his strut, belligerence in his posture, take-your-best-shot branded on his out-thrust chin.
And now, Oct. 15, 1972, he shuffled across the artificial surface of Riverfront Stadium for a ceremony preceding a Cincinnati-Oakland World Series game.
Robinson shuffling warily? His hair so gray? His gait wobbled by diabetes , his eyesight blurred? Pain shimmered off the plastic grass and into the minds of those who had known him in his warrior days.
Red Barber introduced Robinson. Barber, the Old Redhead, the voice of the Dodgers, his voice still mellow, his manner courtly. The honeyed drawl came naturally. Barber was born in Mississippi, raised in Florida.
And when Branch Rickey said he was signing Robinson to play for the Dodgers, Barber’s first thought was to resign. He did not. He managed to keep his professional distance, his courtly poise, through those dramatic years in Brooklyn.
It was Robinson’s turn to speak and his voice was thin but precise. He
thanked his wife, his family, the fans. He praised “Captain” Pee Wee Reese. He lauded the game.
And then, slowly, he turned toward the third base dugout and said, ”Someday I’d like to be able to look over at third base and see a black man managing the ballclub.”
Nine days later, that gallant heart stopped beating. The Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy.
“All of us,” Jackson said, “are better off because a man with a mission passed this way.” . . .
When Robinson retired in 1956, a job with Chock Full O’ Nuts was waiting, personnel vice president.
“He could have gone in as a celebrity vice president, doing the celebrity thing,” [Rachel Robinson, his wife] said. “Instead, he went in to learn the business.
“He was one of the few personnel directors who went to funerals, weddings, jail, wherever he had to go to use his influence, his presence.
“He had two ideas when he left baseball: first, we needed to be more involved in economic development. And two, be more involved in politics.”
Robinson gravitated toward the Republican side. He backed Nelson Rockefeller and then Richard Nixon.
“When you’ve got a maverick, you’ve got a maverick,” Mrs. Robinson said. ”Our families had a tradition of being Democrats. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the Roosevelt is after Teddy.
“When Nixon failed to respond to Martin Luther King when he was jailed, Jack realized he was dealing with a recalcitrant person and became disillusioned with him.”
In 1997, Les Carpenter of the Seattle Times added:
As he got older, Robinson became more outspoken. In 1949, at the request of Rickey, he appeared before the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to dispel notions that blacks would not fight for the United States in a war against the Soviet Union. His testimony contradicted a statement made in Paris by Paul Robeson, an African-American actor and singer who insisted there were more civil rights in the communist USSR than there were in the United States.
Speaking against a prominent member of his own race was something Robinson later regretted. But it was one of many unusual contrasts in his public life. Socially, he was a Democrat, yet as a businessman who for a few years ran a clothing store in addition to the bank, he was more of a Republican. In 1960, he worked on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, and he was a good friend of New York’s Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who later became Gerald Ford’s vice president. In 1967, Robinson resigned from the NAACP.
After his retirement from baseball, in 1956, he took a job as a vice president for Chock Full O’ Nuts , a restaurant chain on the East Coast. He traveled from store to store, talking to the mostly black employees, encouraging them to go back to school and push for better jobs within the company. This strange contrast from his political side was further emphasized when he quit Chock Full O’ Nuts after the workers were forced to agree to a union contract that didn’t provide for much upward mobility.
Robinson’s children followed various paths, but the most interesting thing I learned was that Jack Jr. was a soldier in the Vietnam War, who developed a drug addiction, went through rehab, then died in a car accident about a year before his father died. Which one has to think had something to do with Robinson’s break with Nixon.